Cycles of incarceration, drug abuse, and poverty undermine ongoing public health efforts to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious disease in vulnerable populations. Jail diversion programs aim to divert low-level drug offenders toward community care resources, avoiding criminal justice costs and disruptions in treatment for HIV, hepatitis C virus (HCV), and drug abuse. We sought to assess the health benefits and cost-effectiveness of a jail diversion program for low-level drug offenders.
Methods and findings
We developed a microsimulation model, calibrated to King County, Washington, that captured the spread of HIV and HCV infections and incarceration and treatment systems as well as preexisting interventions such as needle and syringe programs and opiate agonist therapy. We considered an adult population of people who inject drugs (PWID), people who use drugs but do not inject (PWUD), men who have sex with men, and lower-risk heterosexuals. We projected discounted lifetime costs and quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) over a 10-year time horizon with and without a jail diversion program and calculated resulting incremental cost-effectiveness ratios (ICERs) from the health system and societal perspectives. We also tracked HIV and HCV infections, overdose deaths, and jail population size.
Over 10 years, the program was estimated to reduce HIV and HCV incidence by 3.4% (95% CI 2.7%–4.0%) and 3.3% (95% CI 3.1%–3.4%), respectively, overdose deaths among PWID by 10.0% (95% CI 9.8%–10.8%), and jail population size by 6.3% (95% CI 5.9%–6.7%). When considering healthcare costs only, the program cost $25,500/QALY gained (95% CI $12,600–$48,600). Including savings from reduced incarceration (societal perspective) improved the ICER to $6,200/QALY gained (95% CI, cost-saving $24,300). Sensitivity analysis indicated that cost-effectiveness depends on diversion program participants accessing community programs such as needle and syringe programs, treatment for substance use disorder, and HIV and HCV treatment, as well as diversion program cost.
A limitation of the analysis is data availability, as fewer data are available for diversion programs than for more established interventions aimed at people with substance use disorder. Additionally, like any model of a complex system, our model relies on simplifying assumptions: For example, we simplified pathways in the healthcare and criminal justice systems, modeled an average efficacy for substance use disorder treatment, and did not include costs associated with homelessness, unemployment, and breakdown in family structure.
We found that diversion programs for low-level drug offenders are likely to be cost-effective, generating savings in the criminal justice system while only moderately increasing healthcare costs. Such programs can reduce incarceration and its associated costs, and also avert overdose deaths and improve quality of life for PWID, PWUD, and the broader population (through reduced HIV and HCV transmission).